‘Nichuu’ is a contraction of ‘Dai Ni Chuu Gakkou’, meaning Second Junior High School, and the name of the school in which I spend most of my time. ‘Second’ is not a ranking of quality, but, I suspect, denotes that it was the second junior high school built in Kitakata.
The first day I made my way to Nichuu I got lost, of course. I set out in plenty of time, but after taking a route that wasn’t quite as scenic as it was unintentional, I found myself forced to drive past the school in a sadistic network of one-way roads, watching in horror as the building vanished behind me. I reached my destination eventually, needlessly flustered for my noble embarkation into the world of teaching.
As a junior high school there are three year groups, and at Nichuu these are divided into four classes of roughly thirty students each. The teacher I liaise with most is a lady called Nakano-sensei who teaches English to the third years. Her English is proficient, to the extent that she speaks it with an American accent. She is also unreservedly lovely to everyone and extremely supportive of me, so I consider myself rather lucky to be in this placement.
The relationship between students and teachers in this country is quite often a wonderful thing to behold. There is a great deal of teasing and horseplay, and it is not unusual to see teachers softly clipping their students about the ear in mock discipline; a level of warmth that seems deplorably stifled in Western institutions. Although it may not permeate every moment of the school day, there is a definite familial cordiality which warms my cardiac cockles.
I was surprised by the extent to which my own relationship with the students changed over just a few months. I entered these schools as a strange novelty, and expected to stay as such; but as we have become better acquainted, the students seem to view me as something more human. Conversely, I have found that, out of the initially amorphous crowds, certain personalities begin to shine through, and eventually it’s possible to perceive the small, quiet ones concealed among the loud and the talented. The juvenile mass incrementally morphs into a collection of unique adolescents, making this process of humanisation a mutual endeavour.
While I seem to have garnered more respect over the months, the students’ keen interest in my love-life has been a constant, despite the fact that it remains (surely to the relief of Anna and Anastasia) pitifully Saharan. Although in many respects I am unsurprised by their curiosity, which ranges from inquisitive to intrusive, it’s been enough to make me wonder if they are secretly entrepreneurs of some dating website. Initially my stock response was to say that such matters were a secret. However, when a very sweet girl from the third year asked me what kind of boys I liked, I considered her limited repertoire of English adjectives and replied “I like nice boys.” The grin she beamed at me was wide and gleeful.
Not only do students seem to find my denial of a boyfriend implausible, fuel for student speculation regarding my romantic undertakings is ever present, because out of the six Communicat ALTs currently in Kitakata (including myself), four are men. We often hang out together, and when students see us they assume I must be dating at least one. The reverse is truer still: when my male friends are seen by their students with me in proximity they conclude I am the wife.
In all honesty, I don’t get grilled about my relationship status that often, though once when I was changing my shoes to leave Nichuu, a girl, draping herself lazily over the lockers, asked if I had a husband. No, I said. She asked if I had a boyfriend. No, I said. She asked me why. Luckily my rejoinder of ‘Piss off, kid’ was only in my head.
One of the best things about the third years is the handful of boys who like to cheek me back, as it’s good natured and usually in English. One of them is very tall and looks like Hades from Disney’s Hercules, while another started a running gag of miming the Spiderman web-shooting hand at me. Once he did it from the back of the class while myself and Nakano-sensei were standing at the front, and I cracked up in front of everyone.
When I started I encountered some poor behaviour in the third year classes, but for reasons I can only guess at this seems to have dissipated. The behaviour problems were never particularly bad, though there was one boy who once went beyond your standard disruptive teenager. I was leading an activity in which the students had to complete the sentence “Have you ever been to…?” in order to then interview their classmates. As I weaved among the desks, the answers were disappointingly unimaginative, until I passed this particular boy, who had written ‘heaven’ in Japanese. I was impressed, and translated it for him. Unfortunately his thinking went from outside the box to inside the bin. Literally. He kept pulling the plastic, garbage-filled bag out of the classroom bin, even groping the bottom of it, while laughing manically. I couldn’t get him to sit down and leave it alone permanently, so alerted Nakano-sensei who gave him a lecture in the corridor. Thankfully he hasn’t done anything so bizarre since, at least while I’ve been there.
There are many students in the third year who are very studious and lovely indeed. Each of them has an ‘English Passport’; paper leaflets which I stamp if they come and talk to me in English. The majority of students rarely use them, but a select few will approach me at my desk during breaks to try their English and get some stamps. It’s very touching when they do, and I glow with pride. One girl came up and tried reading passages from the textbook. Another girl with deep-set eyes, a dimpled smile and unbound enthusiasm has practiced her English with me quite a lot. In my first week she said a few words to me, and Nakano-sensei told her to get her passport stamped. She darted out of the room in a flurry of energy to fetch it, and in her wake Nakano-sensei commented “She’s like a hamster.” There was a period of time when this girl came to speak to me frequently, culminating in a day when she approached my desk holding a small pink postit note and, in Japanese preamble, said that she had prepared for this conversation. In English, she told me she had a pain in her lower back, to which I expressed my sympathies. She concluded, “Because of my period.” It was an unexpected comment, but menstruation does universally suck.
The second years, meanwhile, have been an object of my bile for a long time. The behaviour in the four classes, certainly when I started, was nothing short of appalling. During training in Tokyo we had been told that, as third-party assistants, we are not responsible for classroom management and in fact should not get involved with discipline in any way, which quite frankly I was relieved with. However, my first day at Nichuu was spent with the second years and, after spending the first lesson impotently watching as one boy encouraged another to repeatedly punch him in the chest, I became increasingly proactive in trying to control them.
One major reason behind the poor behaviour is the poor classroom management of their teacher, Amai-sensei. At twenty-three years of age, she is the youngest teacher at Nichuu, and this is her first gig since graduating. Amai-sensei is a nice woman and works very hard, but sadly lacks confidence and can consequently struggle to keep the kids engaged. Over a few months I saw a marked improvement in her confidence and classroom management, but she would seem to still have much to learn, in terms of designing interesting activities and gaging the ability of the students. I used to experience a strong sense of dread whenever I saw the second years appear on my schedule, but later did not have the same sensation of foreboding, due in part to a conscious effort to give much less of a shit.
One of the classes has two loud, perverted boys in it, and way back in July I briefly saw that one of them had drawn a picture on the inside cover of his English folder. He hastily hid it, while chuckling bashfully because he knew I’d seen the rather geometric phallus illustration. However, as he had labelled it ‘PENIS’ in English I couldn’t help feeling it was somehow relevant.
Not every student in the second year is bad, of course, and some are really lovely. One tiny girl whose face is constantly half obscured by a facemask told me in English “You are cute,” and was very excited that we shared a fondness of pandas. A few months later she bounded up to me as I was leaving work and told me “I can’t English!” There’s also a tall girl who is incredibly studious, and even has her own electronic dictionary. Unfortunately these students aren’t quite enough to dilute the dismay that washes over me at the prospect of teaching 2-1, the worst class. In its ranks are students who cannot be persuaded to do any work, disrespectful boys, a dorky-looking girl who literally never shuts up, and two bitchy girls who use excessively loud laughter as an intimidation tactic.
It seems that the more time I have spent with the second years, the easier they have been to handle, and Amai-sensei has been increasingly friendly with me, which is nice because her introverted nature could be mistaken as standoffish.
The first years, contrariwise, are taught by a man called Takeda-sensei who is probably the best teacher I have ever seen. He is extremely charismatic and his lessons play out like a stand-up act. During his classes every student is captivated by him, spending most of the lesson rolling with laughter. Even the students who try to avoid doing any work can’t seem to help enjoying themselves. So many of the first year students are wonderful, although my favourite is a pale boy with a face reminiscent of a red panda. His often completely vacant puppy expression will suddenly change to unbridled enthusiasm, like he’s woken up and remembered he’s really excited about learning.
Takeda-sensei once mentioned to me that I should tell the JTEs if I notice any ‘mysterious’ students. Although his English is extremely good, I think he was translating the word ‘fukushii,’ a concept that falls somewhere between mysterious and strange. He was referring, I’m pretty sure, to students who refuse to work or even to smile. There’s a couple in the first year, including a girl who would not engage, and looked pretty miserable most of the time. One day I saw her smile, and mentioned it to Takeda-sensei after class. He said that he too had only seen her laugh and smile for the first time the week before, after months of teaching her. I then mentioned that she might need glasses, as I had noticed her squinting at the board. The next time I saw her, she was bespectacled. I have no idea if my remark had anything to do with their acquisition, but I have consequently seen her smiling even more.
Frequently the class focusses on one short conversation for the lesson, which the students must then perform from memory. One day, the conversation ran as follows:
Ken: What time do you wake up?
Emma: I usually wake up at six.
Ken: At six? Really?
Emma: Yes. I come to school early. I study Japanese before class.
One girl was struggling to say the lines by heart, but her determination was peerless. She tried again and again and again in a positively aggressive effort to be awarded an A. She could never say the lines smoothly, and in her attempts to recite the passage, she would point at me, jump about, and shout the words, which was both entertaining and admirable. Having already gone through the script countless times, she pointed and hollered “I COME TO SCHOOL REALLY! … MARY! … EARLY!” I was reduced to hysterics and took some time to compose myself, during which time a number of other students saw me and got the giggles.
I have also taught the first years with Umeda-sensei, a middle-aged trainee teacher. Unfortunately Umeda-sensei’s teaching isn’t of the same calibre as Takeda-sensei’s. She is not a bad teacher, but she isn’t particularly engaging and, although a very nice lady, can be a little odd. She bumbles about like Mrs Tiggywinkle, and raises her shoulders as if someone is about to strike her. I occasionally look up to see her staring at me, and she tends to blink in an exaggerated way, though I do something similar when my contact lenses dry out. Even so, it was pretty upsetting to be in a third year class which Umeda-sensei was observing, and noticing a number of the students were mocking her behind her back. Of course, one can argue that such is the nature of teenagers, but it was a little distressing that my Japanese wasn’t good enough to tell them to stop being dicks.
Finally, Nichuu has a Special Needs class made up of two girls and four boys. I have only taught them about five times, but the lessons are really fun, as they are more game-orientated, and the kids are extremely sweet natured.
The Teachers’ Room
All the teachers have desks in an office-like teachers’ room. The room is headed by a table for the Vice Principle and the Scheduler. The Principle has his own adjacent office which is nicely decked out with leather chairs for receiving guests. The Vice Principle is like the Prime Minister, in charge of daily operations, while the Principle is like a king or emperor who one does not see as often but is probably doing very important public relations work. The desks are divided into groups for the three different years, while I am sat at a group of four desks for things that don’t quite fit. Opposite me is the school nurse, Ikeuchi-sensei, a lovely and lively lady who is a great comic and talks to me often. Unfortunately her style is to speak rather quickly, so I catch very little of what she actually says. The desk next to her is filled by a couple of printers, and the desk next to me has only been occupied for a total of three weeks since I arrived, when a university student training to be a PE teacher took residence there. There is a PC at my desk, but it is so ancient that it kept displaying a message reading ‘This computer will soon stop receiving Google Chrome updates because it is no longer supported,’ becoming slower and more useless by the day. I didn’t consider it my place to draw attention to it, so now it only serves to prop up my paperwork, which I bluetack to the screen.
There are some elements of my new workplace culture that sit at odds with the practices I became accustomed to back in old country. As teachers enter the teachers’ room in the morning, they will call out ‘good morning’ to the room in general and those already present will echo back the salutation in a fairly monotonous chorus. While not unfriendly, it can at times sound like a field of cattle omitting nonchalant and preoccupied groans to no one in particular.
Another difference, related to wider cultural practice, is that all teachers are referred to by their family name, even by their colleagues. This rule is broken, however, when there is more than one teacher with the same name, which in Japan can happen frequently. At Nichuu there are three Ito-senseis, and so they go by their given names. I also go by my given name, because of my foreignness.
The treat culture is also different. In the library where I previously worked, sweets would appear as if by sorcery in the middle of the office, to be devoured incrementally by staff at will. Birthdays and other noteworthy dates occasioned such a phenomenon, but frequently food would be conjured forth purely for increasing morale. Here, however, the custom is to leave individually wrapped treats on each teacher’s desk after a holiday, or perhaps to mark a life event. Although I was aware of this sweetie etiquette, I did not bring any treats into work after the two week summer holiday as I had not travelled outside of the local area. However, upon receiving many goodies from other teachers on the first day back, I panicked that I had committed a massive faux pas for which I would pay in social credibility. In a rush of anxiety I purchased sweets from the local supermarket, and handed them out the next day along with the explanation that they were from Kitakata because I had not ventured far afield during the break. It was an expensive penitence, but actually provided a good opportunity to have a chat with a couple of staff members using my feeble language skills.
‘Language barrier’ is a phrase well-worn to the point of being threadbare, but it is not until one has experienced the communicative rampart that the barrier in question seems less like a linguistic picket fence and more of a socially impenetrable stone barrack. For someone who witters as tirelessly as I, the inability to speak fluently is quite frustrating, and is the reason why I don’t speak much to the other teachers. I have, however, managed to make some social progress by attending a handful of drinking parties. Somewhat sadly the recreational meetings of teachers appear to be limited to well organised and pre-booked events; although there may be plenty of impromptu alcohol-orientated revelry that I am simply not privy to. While most teachers will smile and say hello to me, there have been a couple of individuals who appeared to make a conscious effort not to engage with me at all.
One was Kobayashi-sensei, a middle-aged art teacher with a gentle, chinless face, and an apparently inexhaustible collection of rather camp aprons. For months he never greeted me at all, then one day he was handing out sweets to everyone, as per the aforementioned convention, and made the effort to explain to me in English that the treats were in celebration of his son’s recent marriage. It wasn’t until after this exchange that I noticed how awkward he can be around everyone. This, I believe, illustrates a situation that many foreigners seem to find themselves in. Even when armed with some fluency in Japanese, people may avoid speaking with you. This tends to get chalked up to shyness, but I think it’s a little more nuanced than that.
English is everywhere in Japan, but in much the same way that French is everywhere in the UK. It is embedded in daily linguistics; it is studied by every child; it is used to connote exoticism and sophistication. My theory, then, is that many Japanese people, finding themselves in the presence of a native English speaker, feel obligated to hold a conversation in English but lack the practice and the confidence to actually do so. To avoid embarrassment, there is a tendency to evade situations in which one might be expected to enter into English parlance, an avoidance that can all too easily be read as a form of subtle hostility. I can illustrate this hypothesis with a further example: I was at an all-day event with many participants, one of whom was a young university student training to be an English teacher. During dinner he sat opposite me, looking at me often but never speaking a word to me in either language, while the girl to my right babbled away quite happily. In the evening, and after a couple of drinks, I heard one of my Japanese friends giving him a life lecture, insisting that it was not his English ability that held him back, but his Japanese thinking.
The other teacher at Nichuu who actively avoided any interaction with me was Sonobe-sensei, a Japanese teacher for the third years. At thirty years of age, Sonebe-sensei is tanned, groomed and toned. He’s also a married father, before any eyebrows get raised, though the situation forced me to question the extent of my own shallowness; was I only bothered by his ostracism because I wanted the good looking boy to like me? No, I concluded. Anyone would be vexed when a colleague walks straight past them and only offers a curt greeting in response to their own salutation. He would act so warmly towards the other staff and students that I was left wondering how exactly I had offended him. After three months of mounting anxiety, there was a mid-term drinking party. Upon arrival attendees selected a small Olympic-themed card (pictured) at random which democratically allocated our seating. As luck would have it, Nakano-sensei was placed next to me so she could act as my translator and speak to me if no one else did. I was sat for about ten minutes when I heard “Next to Jennie-sensei,” and looked up to see Sonobe-sensei being motioned toward me. I felt a little apprehensive, sure that he would physically turn his back to me and move away at the first opportunity, but I was also happy to finally have a chance to chip away at the frozen wall I had previously been confronted with, and hope beyond hope that talking to me didn’t prove too disagreeable. He actually spoke to me a fair bit in the end, at one point asking me about the differences between American and British English, and we had a giggle with Ikeuchi-sensei. I also heard a story from his student days in which, on a school trip to Hawaii, he locked himself out of his hotel room and consequently broke in through the window via his friend’s room next door. His teacher gave him a severe bollocking, because his room was on the seventeenth floor. That evening I walked away from the bar feeling triumphant, which was a little premature as the relationship remained pretty tepid and distant.
Other than this, the teachers are generally nice to me. The Principle is sweet and approachable, and speaks to me on occasion. One day he approached me and asked if I liked maccha, powered green tea. I told him I loved it and he seemed to invite me into his office, but I didn’t understand fully so panicked and stayed where I was. A little later he welcomed the Vice Principle and Scheduler in, and as I watched them vanish inside the office I realised I’d gaffed. I sat and agonised over my mistake, though thankfully it wasn’t long until Ikeuchi-sensei was back at her desk and the Principle came out again to invite us both in. It transpired that he had high quality tea and beautiful ceramic bowls, and we enjoyed a cup with him, loosely in the style of the tea ceremony. The tea was good, if a little bitter, and I completely failed to keep up with their conversation. I have some experience of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, though this did not prevent me from worrying about breaching etiquette.
The Vice Principle is also nice, but I find him extremely difficult to understand which is embarrassing and frustrating, especially as he’s made valiant efforts to speak to me. One day he inquired after my holiday travels, but as he used the English word ‘travel,’ I thought he was trying to say ‘trouble’ and became very confused. Umeda-sensei, who was fortuitously standing nearby, was pulled in to translate. On another occasion he asked me about my home city and, impressively, he had heard of Leicester, thanks to football. Meanwhile Shirokawa-sensei is a science teacher filled with energy who has a joke with everyone. He likes to speak random English to me, and on my first day, after seeing a laminated union jack on my desk, leaned in to whisper cheekily “I like Scottish whiskey.”
One of the Itos, Taichi-sensei, is a short, middle-aged man who is always smiling. He’s been lovely to me from the beginning, and occasionally asks me questions about English. One day told me that his daughter had expressed an interest in meeting me, after Taichi-sensei had apparently sung my praises to her. He mentioned that she attends a school in Aizu Wakamatsu, a neighbouring city, and is taught English by an Australian. I asked if it was a woman with auburn hair. Taichi-sensei didn’t know, but after flipping open a directory, confirmed it was my friend Megan. The ALT world can be quite small.
The following day Taichi-sensei handed me a letter that his daughter had written to me in English. I was so elated that I was unable to stop smiling, and the joviality carried me through most of a second year class in the first period. I wrote a reply that evening, and am quite proud to have gained a new pen pal.
I started work at Nichuu on Monday 29th June. At lunchtime on Wednesday 8th July Amai-sensei asked if I was going drinking that evening. I hadn’t the foggiest what she was talking about, but soon discovered that a table had been booked at a local establishment and a special gluten-free meal ordered for me as my welcome party. It seemed a little odd that no one had thought to mention this to me before, though I consequently discovered that going out for dinner, and washing it down with plenty of alcohol, is standard practice upon the appointment of new staff members. I did my best to memorise a brief speech which Nakano-sensei had edited, but fumbled the pronunciation and perplexed the group. The evening went pretty well, however, in the company of about ten of the teachers, who all paid for my meal and drinks. During the evening Nakano-sensei said to me “I hope you can stay for a long time,” which was a warm welcome indeed.